This one’s from May 3, 2019, but it goes back considerably further. For those just beaming to Earth from the Starship Whatever, the pandemic has pushed Kentucky Derby 146 to Labor Day weekend in September. This hasn’t prevented phantom celebrations of the race that isn’t, at least just yet. All of it is suitably surreal, but as Hunter S. Thompson observed a half-century ago, the Kentucky Derby hasn’t ever been exactly as it appears — even when it disappears.
ON THE AVENUES HORSE RACE REHASH: Sadly, the Kentucky Derby no longer is decadent and depraved. It’s just another vacuous capitalist bait ‘n’ switch.
Everybody’s working for the weekend.
(Ralph) Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the fronts of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
It’s getting better all the time, except when it isn’t. That’s why the Great Pumpkin invented gin.
The insipid cacophony of Blunder Over Louisville has receded from view, and the most recent iteration of Kentucky Derby Festival hyperbole approaches its yearly sell-by date.
Soon our peculiar institution, otherwise known as the Run for the Roses — or, the greatest two-minute anticlimax in all of sports — mercifully concludes, freeing the dazed masses to return to exurban multiplexes for repeat viewings of whatever comic-book-derived motion picture drivel currently diverts their attention from facing up to the daily challenges of this decidedly uncivil society.
By then the two-week expanse of festive revelry will have rendered half a month null and void as they pertain to any semblance of useful activity.
Insightfully, though not judgmentally, visitors entering the gates of European cities in medieval times wrote of rampant public drunkenness, especially during celebrations, with people sprawled insensate in the streets amid mounds of garbage and excrement.
Mud, blood and beer; all merely natural states of urban occupancy. Consequently 700 years later, on Sunday, numerous residents of Louisville metro likewise will find themselves lying prone on the toasty tarmac; chewed up, spat out, and duly prepped to begin queueing at local rehab clinics. Let’s hope they bathe first, but maybe cynics like me will get lucky and it will rain all day Saturday.
Meanwhile the world’s foremost horse pimps, with their entourages of low-paid attendants and exploitative regalia, already will have traveled to fresh drugging grounds elsewhere in pursuit of the Triple Crown, which now trails full-contact tiddlywinks in the spectrum of TV sports ratings, but almost made sense back when previous masters like Heywood Hale “Woody” Broun appeared on black and white television doing commentary at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park.
If you’re getting an impression of personal distaste about the Kentucky Derby, that’s only because it’s entirely true.
As I’ve often observed, ruinous mint juleps and atrociously unflattering hats don’t function as aphrodisiacs in my rarefied world, and yet someone always asks if I’m excited by this most over-rated time of year in Louisville metro.
Nah, but hey — I’ve mellowed and shit.
It’s fine by me if the Kentucky Derby is your kind of gig, so please go forth and have right at it. Just count me out, and kindly refrain from stepping on my lawn this Saturday unless you’re bringing delicious bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchbier to accompany our projected roast beast.
Then everyone can be happy, as opposed to the flag-waving idiocy of Blunder, when the noise is impossible to muffle no matter how much I drink.
And I drink a lot whenever warplanes strafe my house.
For some, especially non-gamblers, the Kentucky Derby is a time to admire the innate beauty of horses. Indeed, they’re splendid animals, albeit regrettably subjected to criminal interference by humans when it comes to thoroughbreds being genetically engineered for the sole purpose of maintaining the custom of wagering and the devastating addiction it often spawns.
Kentucky Derby fest season also is a time for lowlifes like me to straighten up, fly right, and obey the one-percent’s finger-wagging instructions by displaying a proper veneration for upstart new money, inbred old money, ephemeral showbiz glamor, ostentatious (read: tacky) parties, and conspicuous consumption by our presumed “betters” of such a vapid intensity that by all rights the spectacle should impel us to commence the instantaneous honing of curative pitchforks.
Happily, the Kentucky Derby is a time for filling the Crescent Hill Reservoir to the rim with bourbon, and here, at last, we find a genuinely positive attribute of the season, so please do me a favor and save that detestable mint for chewing gum or some of the wonderful chilled yogurt soup the Greeks do so well in summer.
As a lifelong contrarian, I’ll take my bourbon ration served neat, then immediately trade it for requisitely peaty drams of Scotch. On the big day, I plan on stocking plenty of hooch and keeping the doors to the 1117 East Spring Neighborhood Association firmly bolted, because in addition to the horse races, May 4 in the year of 2019 doubles as the last Saturday of invasive voter canvassing prior to the Indiana primary election on the 7th.
I just might be compelled to booby trap my porch with tarantulas and other deadly cargo.
But recall that the calendar was even less favorable to civilized existence in 2018, when Derby Day coincided with Cinco de Mayo, which is fast approaching St. Patrick’s Day as an expression of sheer amateurism among my fellow Caucasians. This year Cinco de Mayo arrives on our post-Derby Sunday, encouraging the oblivious party to keep right on going, and lending a whole new meaning to Day of the Dead.
Last year at Insider Louisville, Susan Reigler — musician, educator, former local restaurant critic and bourbon expert — sat down with Sara “Bar Belle” Havens for a few questions.
(Reigler’s) affinity — or awareness, we should say — for bourbon came much earlier in her life, when she would spend Saturdays at Churchill Downs with her family.
“The track in those days always smelled of old wood, cigars, popcorn and bourbon — quite a special combination,” says Reigler.
In spite of all my cranky bluster, I can relate to these sentiments. There’s a part of me that genuinely appreciates the old-school, tactile joys of the pre-intravenous ponies, the shabby and dung-laden track, and the laid-back Southern culture that used to characterize this scene.
The native Louisvillian writer Thompson grasped it better than most, and his 1970 account remains essential reading precisely because it deconstructed the mythology and described what the Kentucky Derby symbolized — what it “was” — with what it very shortly would become:
(The Texan) had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.”
Around the same time, I can remember Broun doing his televised racing commentaries — and the man could write, too.
To be great, a horse must have metaphorical wings. In mythology we punished wax-winged Icarus for flying too close to the sun, but in recognition of the nobility of their singlemindedness, mythology has let the chariot horses of Apollo traverse the sky. Race horses do not chaffer over money, get into bar fights or endorse horse blankets and aluminum shoes. They combine strength, grace, beauty and speed as perhaps no other link in the Darwinian chain can manage (cheetahs have funny-looking shoulders).
There was a certain poetic flair, albeit oblivious, to the way the Courier-Journal of old used to cover the varied expressions of Churchill Downs pageantry, a quality of an indefinable “something” both venerable and genteel involving rites of spring, colorful flowers, exclusive balls and parties, and as a last resort, the horses themselves. Customs were handed down from one generation to the next, and honored.
Compared to what the Downs and the Derby have become in this time of celebrity-besotted, Disney-cum-Vegas plasticized swipe-card, UPC-tattooed entertainment experiences, 1970 might as well have been 1905.
Listen, I’m not delusional. Breeding horses for racing, wagering on them, smoking, drinking, eating and all the social constructs draped around the experience always had to do with shaking down suckers, first and foremost.
That’s understood, although I submit that during the course of my own life — perhaps as a result of globalization, or Reagan’s trickle-down, or the entire business of America’s business becoming a 24-hour-per-day psychological waterboarding designed to sell, sell, sell — most of the tradition and authenticity have been drained away, or perhaps stripped and flipped like the Yankee Stadium demolition and rebuild, yielding an improved model in which every last corpuscle of sculpted cement, fake wood and pastel color is calculated for one reason and one reason alone — to ensure that fools and their cash are expeditiously parted now, as a racetrack, and then even more so later, somewhere down the way, as a casino.
But enough of the Kentucky Derby’s deleterious implications for human civilization.
Let’s talk about beer.
From 2012 through 2017 the “official” beer of the signature institution known as Churchill Downs was Stella Artois, chosen import of AB-InBev’s payola empire. In 2018 the title passed to Corona, perhaps the most vile mainstream corn-choked Mexican lager atrocity known to man.
In 2019, pay-to-place reaches glorious new heights of Goebbelsian categorization, although I’m crushed to learn that there isn’t (yet) an Official Hard Seltzer Water of the Kentucky Derby.
- Corona – Official Import Beer of the Kentucky Derby
- Budweiser – Official Domestic Beer of the Kentucky Derby
- Blue Moon – Official Craft Beer of Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby
The Brewers Association reminds us that Blue Moon cannot be “craft,” but no matter. While the Kentucky Derby has spawned or embraced many intrinsic traditions since its inaugural run in 1875, locally brewed beer hasn’t ever been prominent among these predispositions.
After all, bourbon gets you there way faster.
Still, we can surmise that in the oldest of far-off times there’d have been plenty of local beer to celebrate the annual race, at least prior to the idiotic onset of Prohibition, which rendered the United States a planetary laughingstock.
After restorative Repeal, local beer returned, but when the original Falls City swapped its fermenters for a fleet of semi-trailers in 1979, there was nary a single drop of hometown beer left to drown a wretched punter’s sorrows until 1993, when Sea Hero’s triumph may have been marked by a few hardy and pioneering microbrew fans drinking David Piece’s Silo Red Rock Ale from a growler on their porch with a radio nearby, because then, as now, the very last situation you’d expect to experience in this life is local beer at Churchill Downs — where first Stella, then Corona and now Blue Moon is the this-that-or-another “official” mass-market creation of choice, and there’s barely any incongruity worth noting because the multinational track itself has little to do with the schizophrenic city and increasingly impoverished state in which it resides.
Here, there and everywhere: when the real money is at stake, you can be sure that soulless neoliberal capitalism will be oozing through the keyhole, breathlessly drooling in anticipation of sponsorship opportunities, with conceptual coherence always taking a back seat to the sheer weight of numerically amassed ending zeroes.
Maybe next time it will be Michelob Ultra. Anyway, there’s plenty of time for an experiment, so go out and assemble a committee of horse pimps. We’ll see if any of them can spot the difference between the watery, beer-scented banality of Corona and those equally reeking buckets of equine drug-testing residue over there where the inspectors are being paid off.
It’s not a trick question, you know.